Mobile barber shop non-profit owner provides empathy, love with free haircuts in Kensington

Philadelphia native Josh Santiago is in his element, doing what he loves, fulfilling a purpose bigger than himself, as his mobile barber shop is parked at Kensington and Cambria and drawing quite the following, with good reason.

Santiago is providing free haircuts to the homeless in Kensington, a Philadelphia neighborhood known as the world’s largest open-air drug market, plagued by addiction, crime and poverty. But, Santiago looks beyond the headlines of the neighborhood and just sees people in need.

"You know, while I was going to barber school, my barber instructor, he used to take the whole class to shelters. That’s how we learned how to cut hair," Santiago explained. "And me being able to provide a free haircut to someone meant more to me than if I actually receive money for it. So, I started providing free haircuts here, in Philly."

He teamed up with a non-profit and traveled the country to struggling communities, giving out free haircuts, until a light bulb went off. At that moment, his own non-profit, Empowering Cuts, came to life four years ago in the same neighborhood he would frequent as a child.

For Santiago, this is more than just a job, "The individuals that are down here, that's currently homeless in the Kensington section, they're people just like we are, you know? So when I come into this community, I'm treating them just like I would want somebody to treat my brother, my cousin, my dad, you know, my kids, whoever it is."

He also says he sees the people on this neighborhood from a personal lens, having seen similar struggles in his own childhood. "My mom, she’s been an addict. I’m 33 years old. My mom’s probably been addicted to crack for about 37 years. In order for me to go see my mom, I got to go visit my mom down at 5th and Indiana or 5th and Cambria cause that’s the neighborhood that she’s at. And, she's either, you know, selling drugs. She's into prostitution. You know, she lives in the crack house. That's the conditions that I got to see her in. But it took for me to do the work that I'm doing now in order for me to have an understanding of addiction. Because I never experienced addiction before. So, for me being able to provide these haircuts, it gives me a sense of knowing what addiction is."

Having seen his own mother struggle and subsequently being in and out of the system as a youth, Empowering Cuts has changed his life around, just as much as the people he serves. "It means everything to them, you know? Just being able to see their reaction afterwards, it's just priceless. Which is why we provide the haircuts. Every single haircut provided at this mobile barbershop was free. Never pay for a haircut. Nobody ever pay for a haircut. And. It to me, the haircut is cool, that's fine, but it's more of being able to build with that individual. Get to know that person for who that person is."

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Santiago continued, "Just being able to converse with these individuals and talk to them and, you know, ask them something. Something as simple as, ‘How are you doing? Are you good?’ A majority of the individuals, I'll ask them, ‘Hey, how's your day going?’ It's a ’Yeah, I'm fine.’ I know that they're not. But, the type of lifestyle that people live, especially you living out here. Just be rough, you know, extremely rough. So I would say is deeper than a haircut, because sometimes people will come in here in a mobile barbershop. They don't even want a haircut. They want to come in here just for some water."

Josh Santiago – an angel on the Kensington streets is giving love and empathy to those the world has written off. "Nobody down here is homeless because they want to be homeless. You got a lot of people in certain situations in their life where they're just not able to bounce back as fast as everybody else, you know? But this community, as I say all the time, the most beautiful people that I ever interacted with in my entire life is the individuals that I come out here and service on a daily basis."